Texas Tech University

Research Team Returns to Belize With More Money, More Questions

Heidi Toth

May 10, 2016


The Chan Chich Archaeological Project, in its fifth year at Texas Tech, provides archaeology students with hands-on experience in a beautiful part of the world.

Chan Chich

Brooke Bonorden will have a challenging commute to her job this summer.

The trek is more than half an hour each way. Oh, and it's by foot, on winding trails, through a rainforest in the summer. When she gets to her “office,” there's no sitting down at a desk in an air-conditioned building. Instead of pens and a computer, she has a trowel, a camera and century-old metal cups.

Bonorden is one of four graduate students in archaeology who are joining Brett Houk, an associate professor of archaeology and chairman of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work at Texas Tech University, at Chan Chich, Belize, to study the ancient Maya civilization. It's the fifth year for Texas Tech, and 10th year for Houk, to dig in this forested region in Central America.


It's also the first year Houk has had a six-figure budget, thanks to a three-year, $240,000 grant from the Alphawood Foundation in Chicago. For a program that traditionally has run on small grants and study abroad fees, it's a much-appreciated influx of funding that will allow Houk's team to study multiple projects during their time in Chan Chich (pronounced “chon cheech”). That's especially helpful given just how much he knows he doesn't know about the Maya who lived in this area for 3,000 years.

The goal for this year is simple, Houk said: learn whatever they can. It's what he's done for the last five years, allowing him to know better year to year what they're looking for and what they don't yet know.

“Every season you come up with new questions you didn't know to ask before,” he said.

The Field School of Maya Archaeology

Houk is the director of the Field School in Maya Archaeology Study Abroad program, which is part of the Chan Chich Archaeological Project (CCAP). Every summer he takes a dozen or more undergraduate students to Chan Chich, along with a few graduate students to run the excavations. The students range from those who know they want to be archaeologists to those who think they want to be archaeologists to those who know they don't want to be archaeologists but enjoy the work anyway.


This summer they are examining a number of sites that cover a long span of time.

  • An area with deposits dating to 700 BC, which will help explain the early founding of the city.
  • The “elite courtyard,” with deposits related to the collapse of the Maya civilization at Chan Chich, dating to about AD 850.
  • A historic Maya village that was occupied from the late 1800s until 1930, when a group of Maya fled the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to avoid the Caste War.
  • Looking for evidence of agricultural fields along the margins of a large lagoon using drones.

The group also will use drones to do aerial mapping of cleared cattle pasture and will be able to do radiocarbon analysis upon returning to Texas Tech in July, which is possible because of the Alphawood grant. Houk said the analysis was too expensive to do on a large scale prior to this year.

During their almost two months at Chan Chich, students will rotate between each of these sites, digging carefully into the dirt for artifacts that explain how the Maya lived, worshipped and governed. Houk's work in CCAP is to discover how the Maya's cities – low-density settlements amid the rainforests, but cities nonetheless – related to their government, a form known as divine kingship.


“What we're looking at is how these cities were structured,” he said. “The aspect I'm interested in is how cities related to the political system of divine kings. The city itself is closely related to the ruling dynasty, and we're trying to find evidence of who that might have been.”

The concept of a divine king – a dynasty whose lineage could be traced to a divine ancestor – is common among the larger city-states, Houk said. He is examining the architecture to see how it points to such a relationship. There is evidence a dynasty existed in Chan Chich; an elite courtyard that has artifacts used in ritual processions, and his team has found a tomb that included a jade pendant, which is a royal symbol.

What that tells Houk is at one point in history, about AD 250, Chan Chich had a divine king. He assumes the dynasty continued over the following centuries but hasn't found tombs or other evidence pointing to a line. What he has found evidence of is looters. Like all the large sites in this part of the world, Chan Chich was the target of intensive looting in the early 1980s.

“The looters, we don't know what they found,” he said. “They could have found a tomb. They could have found what we're looking for.”

ceramic vessel from burial

Ashley Booher, who is graduating with her master's degree in August, discovered a more modest burial in the courtyard she was examining in summer 2015. Her thesis centered around two causeways, known as sacbeob, thought to be used for ritual processions. In 2014 and 2015 she led undergraduate students in digging along the sides of those causeways, looking for musical instruments, drums, jewelry or other signs that a king had been carried down these roadways in a processional.

She didn't find evidence of that along the sacbeob, but in a courtyard adjacent to the eastern causeway constructed in the same time period (AD 750-800), she found costume jewelry, a ceramic drum and a shell trumpet as well as the burial that included a possible headdress with deer antlers that would have been used for a ritual function, leading her to infer the causeways were used for rituals.

This summer, having finished her research, she'll dig at Norman's Temple. It's her fifth and final year at Chan Chich.

“We're trying to figure out what was going on there, seeing if the elite could have moved there after the slow abandonment of the site,” Booher said. “We're going to try to add to what we already know about the previous excavations done at Norman's Temple.”

A day in the field

Days in Chan Chich start early for the researchers; they're up with the sun, usually before 6 a.m. The group eats breakfast at 6:30, then separates into teams. Bonorden collects her team, and they start their 35-minute hike to the historic Maya village.


This village presents a much different challenge for the budding archaeologists than did Booher's work. Booher's students use pickaxes to cut through the layers of sediment built up over hundreds of years. Bonorden's students use trowels and try not to step on the artifacts, which are almost lying around on the surface.

“It was kind of overwhelming,” said Bonorden, who's returning for her second year before graduating in August. “That's good because there was a lot of research potential, but it was scary for me because that meant there was way more stuff for me to analyze and write up.”

The historic Maya village was settled in the late 1800s, so finding tin cans, glass bottles and other, more modern artifacts is par for the course, although the students have uncovered stone tools, metates and other tools used for grinding. After eight weeks last summer the students had excavated less than 5 percent of the village, so she'll be there again this year.

“It's really hard to say a lot about the people who lived here with such a small sample size, so to do them more justice in the narrative we're going to create about this site we really should be more thorough in excavating more of it,” she said.

Bonorden's contribution to the narrative was a look into how the Maya interacted with the British and Mexican colonial governments and the loggers who came through, each laying a different claim to the land. She considered how their interactions with these groups changed both the Maya and the other groups.

“Cultural contact's not a one-way street,” she said. “It's a give and take on both ends.”

Students excavating burial site

After about eight hours of digging, cataloging and photographing, all the teams return to the lodge for dinner. Houk gives a lecture once or twice a week, sometimes they show a movie or the students have free time. The graduate students, who are CCAP employees, use the time to catch up on paperwork.
“Everybody usually goes to bed pretty early because they have to get up pretty early the next day and they're pretty tired,” Houk said.

Signing up for CCAP

The course is offered every summer. Students interested in the Field School in Maya Archaeology, which is run through Study Abroad at Texas Tech, can contact Houk or go to the website. It is open to any student interested in archaeology, but Houk warned it is not a tropical vacation; although the rainforest is beautiful and the resort where the students live is pleasant, the class includes about eight hours a day of physical labor in the hot, humid environment. Field work experience such as that provided by CCAP is critical to any student planning to be an archaeologist or go to graduate school.

“It was probably the nicest place I've ever done archaeology,” Bonorden said.

Chan Chich